A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to a Project

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Happy accidents are the best you can have I always say. In my last post, I lamented a mistake I had made with my first period class, and I’m happy to report that I think I may have already learned from that mistake. As mentioned last time, my first period gives me trouble from time to time. It can be difficult to get full focus from them, but really worse is they can be very complacent to accomplish the bear minimum task. I’m at a point in my career that I’m simply not okay with that anymore. So you’re not labeled gifted–who cares? A label only defines you if you let it; unfortunately, I think many of my students in that first period are often times okay with the label of being ‘on-level,’ ‘college prep’ students. The point here is that I wanted to challenge them with a project I would usually reserve for my honors/gifted group. When I did earlier this week, they bucked against me hard! They wanted nothing to do with it; the requirements were confusing, would take times, and lacked a connection they could see. Now, I could have gotten frustrated again, and I did to a degree; this time, however, I turned their complaints around on them to help them help me revise the project to be something they had some actual ownership.

My original project had students reading a passage from Odyssey and going through a series of steps: summarize the text, generate discussion questions, use discussion to pull out important concepts and features of the text, pull quotes from the text to demonstrate when various literary devices are used, and make a relevant connection to the world they live in. The result would be a one page resource (or website) to give to those who hadn’t read their same section including a brief presentation to explain how they designed their resource. To say they hated this challenge is a gross understatement.

While they didn’t advocate a change, I could see one was necessary, so today I turned the conversation on them. “What do you want to do with the section of the Odyssey you have?”

Silence.

“Seriously, what do you want to do with this section of the Odyssey? Where do we go from here?”

A young lady simply threw out, “Summarize it.” Ah. The push. The push to go to basics and do what is familiar. I totally understand. I didn’t shoot her down and instead asked, “Why can’t we just summarize the passage?” Students think for a moment. A male student finally says “It’s too basic. I already know how to summarize.” Bingo!

“Right,” I reply, “You’ve all heard me say this before, but something like a summary creates knowledge that is shallow. We need depth. We need to think!”

From the left side of the room, another boy interjects, “Could we draw pictures?” Now we’re cooking!

“Sure. What are we going to do with the drawings?”

The conversation veered into more questions about concerns about not being able to draw, so I offered taking photographs. “Well what about a Google image?” one boy asked.  “Why not, but again what are you going to DO with them?”

That stumped them for a moment, but after only a few moments of awkward silence, they started to offer ideas of making the images symbolic of the passage.

“Awesome! I love that idea. Could you add a quote to show how the image connects back to the passage?” Most students nod or say yes.

“Okay then, what is the new criteria for the project going to be?” I’m excited now. “Remember, we need depth. Avoid the shallow end.”

In a matter of about ten minutes, students helped me re-craft the entire project to become much more multimodal. We negotiated the ability to draw, take photos, or to remix images found online, explain the chosen image and its connection symbolically to the passage, pull a quote that helps demonstrate that connection, and to work in teams to make a cohesive series of images that could act as an art gallery for others. Cool, right?! They designed the task, they set the criteria, and starting tomorrow we’ll try moving forward with all of us re-energized and willing to take on the task. The best part is a few students said they thought the task was easier now. I think you know as well as I do that what they designed isn’t easier, but it is in a style and language they now understand.

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My favorite part of the end of class was having one young man come up to me who had drawn up a diagram of what a gallery could look like to clarify the ideas he had in his head. (See below.) Too cool.

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Some days I get it horribly wrong, but some days me and the kids, well, we get it right.

(Now lets see how they follow through!)

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2 thoughts on “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to a Project

  1. What I’m reading in the past two posts is a developing mindfulness. What I see is that tension that exists between who knows what’s best for the students, and that perhaps that tension is best negotiated collaboratively. When the teacher concedes some autonomy and allows trust to develop, the students will point out their own ZPD…at least on this occasion.

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